Like countless other brides, Chelsea Todd woke up on her wedding day, got her hair and makeup done and put on a beautiful wedding dress, preparing to see her fiancé.
Nov. 20 should have been her wedding day. But Todd spent the day sitting in the grass at a gravesite instead and her wedding portraits, taken by a close friend, are memories of mourning instead of joy.
Patrick Duva, Todd's future husband, died just weeks before their wedding day on Nov. 5. The 29-year-old Marine veteran died of cancer.
Two tumors in his brain, on his pineal and pituitary glands, and a series of tumors on his spine affected his nervous system and left him blind. Duva and his family were adamant -- his cancer was caused by toxic exposure during his service in Afghanistan, where pits of burning trash smoldered and smoked all day and all night, spewing noxious fumes into the air he breathed.
And so Todd was robbed a future with her young husband-to-be. But now she's on a mission to advocate for vets like him.
"As time starts to pass, I sit here realizing that it's now my turn to fight," Todd told Connecting Vets just days after visiting Duva's grave for the first time, sitting beside it in the sun in her wedding dress, a winter bouquet in her arms and a photo of him in his dress uniform beside her. "To fight for Patrick and all of his brothers and sisters who have fought and continue to fight."
Todd said she wanted to bring awareness to the far-reaching effects of toxic exposures, harming not only the veterans who were exposed but all those who love them.
"The immense heartache I feel is something I do not want any other family to feel," she said.
When she shared the photos on her social media pages, Todd wrote a message to her late fiancé.
"Nov. 20, 2020 should have been the happiest day of our lives. Instead, I sit here dreaming of how perfect our wedding would have been," she wrote. "I dream of our future and being your wife. I know how excited you were to see me walking down the aisle in my dress, all done up ... I did just that. Save me the first dance in Heaven, but until then, dance with me in my dreams."
Todd and Duva's sister, Brianne, shared his story with Connecting Vets in September, when the young veteran was in end-of-life care at home, unable to see, eat, drink and barely able to speak except to tell his family at his bedside he loved them.
Duva was a bright light in their lives, they said, a history buff, pizza connoisseur, trivia ace, future teacher, terrible dancer and stubborn protector. He was inspired to serve his country after witnessing the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 in New York first hand as a kid. He turned down college scholarships to put his life on the line.
Then, he returned from Afghanistan where he lived and worked near burn pits full of blazing, smoking military trash, and eventually sickened. His diagnosis was delayed by months at a Department of Veterans Affairs hospital, his family said.
VA does not recognize any long-term health effects caused by burn pits or other airborne hazards during service but says as many as 3.5 million troops and veterans may have been exposed since 9/11 and more than 212,000 have added themselves to VA's airborne hazard registry. There's a growing movement from Capitol Hill lawmakers, veterans, families and even celebrity advocates such as Jon Stewart, pushing for VA to cover illnesses vets say are linked to their exposures, and several major bills in Congress aim to do just that. For now, the burden is on the sick veterans to prove that their exposures caused their illnesses, though with Pentagon records notoriously incomplete, that's proven impossible for many.
Duva's was a rare pediatric brain cancer that evolved from the germinoma tumors in his brain and on his spine -- a form of cancer more often seen in children and less common for a previously healthy, athletic Marine in his late 20s who grew up playing baseball and tackle football on the front lawn. While VA approved and covered his referral for care outside the limits of department hospitals, his cancer would prove too much. On Sept. 11, he was placed in hospice and end-of-life care at home. On Nov. 5, he died surrounded by the people who love him most.
"Pat always said, 'I went into the Marine Corps a healthy 18-year-old and I came out with all of these issues,'" Brianne told Connecting Vets. "He felt in his heart that if he never joined, he would not have had the cancer. But he would not have changed anything."
"He fount until the very end with mountainous courage, strength, dignity and grace," Todd told Connecting Vets just days after Duva's death.
Todd met Duva at a friend's wedding, where they were beer pong partners at the reception, she remembers, laughing. He was newly home from Afghanistan and she was "a shy, good girl."
"He was just this Marine badass and I was so nervous," she said, smiling.
But Brianne, who was with Duva when they drove home that night, said Chelsea was all he could talk about.
"He would tell anyone it was love at first sight," Brianne said. "He knew he wanted to marry her that day."
Duva proposed in December last year, sick as he was. Even though it was a struggle, he got down on his knee for her in her apartment, "very sweet and simple and very us," Chelsea said.
"He protected me, even throughout all this he always managed to protect me," she said, tears in her voice. "I think he knew a lot longer before he said anything that this was it, but he kept saying he was OK, he was always reassuring me."
Todd says she doesn't regret Duva's service either. It brought them and their families together. His squad leader his her brother-in-law, married to her twin.
"As much as this hurts, I would go through this again because I would never change the nine years I had with him and I'd much rather experience the love we have," she said.
Todd promised to continue telling Duva's story, hoping to protect others from his fate, and hers.
"I vow to forever live through you," she said in vows she shared with Connecting Vets. "I promise to keep your name and legacy alive. I promise to try my absolute hardest to live just like you every day, to be brave, courageous, strong. To fight like hell with grace and dignity. To never give up no matter the circumstances. I vow to always look for the good in situations and continue to smile, laugh and dance through the storms, just like you always did. Although I yearn for many more years with you, Patrick, you have provided me with enough love to last me a lifetime. I love you for eternity. My first, my last, my only. Until we meet again my sweet boy."
For information on how to add yourself to VA's burn pit and airborne hazard registry, click here.
Need help with toxic exposure? Click here for a list of resources and information on VA and Defense Department registries.
To learn more about research on military toxic exposures: Hunter Seven Foundation
Read the Connecting Vets Toxic Inferno series:
Toxic exposure could soon kill more service members and veterans than suicide, advocates say
⅓ of a decorated Iraq War platoon now suffering from exposure to war’s lethal leftovers
Afghanistan burn pits likely killed a decorated general, doctor says. He won’t be the last.
America’s ‘sacred obligation.’ 3.5 million troops exposed to possibly lethal airborne toxins since 9/11
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